I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent post by Biochembelle called “the pipeline isn’t leaky”.
I definitely agree with her, the way we define “the pipeline” is that you’re only in it if you’re headed toward tenure track, and that’s a problem. Because, while I’m still using my science degrees, and I feel like I’m still doing a lot of cool work on behalf of science (and I hope to do a lot, lot more), I feel like a drip. I feel like I’ve “failed” because I don’t have a tenure track job.
Some of that is on me, of course. I originally went into science because I DID want a tenure track job. Along the way, my desires changed, as I saw the reality of what a TT job is like (writing grants day and night is NOT my cup of tea). Getting out of the pipeline, however, was much harder than just realizing that wasn’t what I wanted. There is a HUGE amount of pressure to stay in the pipeline. Pressure because that’s what you “should” be doing in the eyes of the people around you, pressure because if you leave the pipeline, you are letting people down. Pressure because, if you leave the pipeline, you are automatically assumed to have failed out of it, even if the reality was that you wanted to leave (yes, yes, everyone says that they personally do not feel this way. The pervading culture says otherwise). Pressure because so few women do make it, and if you leave, you are failing to be an example to your gender. And there’s other kinds of pressure, the interior feeling that maybe you ARE failing out, maybe you CAN’T hack it and that’s why you’re leaving. Pressure to stay in because it’s the devil you know. Pressure to stay in because, often, you don’t know how to do anything else.
All that pressure makes for a fast flow of water, and if you’re not careful it’ll carry you along. This can’t be good, either for the people in it, or for the people who “drip out”.
There needs to be a change. I think it could start by renaming the “pipeline”, maybe a web? A network? Something else, so that we have to change how we think of the endpoints of scientific training. If there is a network, or a pipeline, there’s no one endpoint, instead there are several. Tenure track AND policy AND writing AND industry AND admin. Just acknowledging in our every day language that these options exist helps to legitimize them.
But I think it also needs to be acknowledged culturally. Trainees shouldn’t have to feel REALLY nervous about talking about “alternative careers” with their PIs. Many of them do feel nervous. Many of them will be so nervous that the PI will get angry, be reproachful, or start ignoring their work that they never talk about it. That’s a problem.
This means PIs need to acknowledge that not all trainees will go to the tenure track, and that those trainees who don’t…are not failures. PIs, or departments, might need to keep in touch with previous lab people who left the tenure track, so they have resources for students who are looking at other careers. Just having those names of people outside the tenure track can mean so much. The assumption, when you see that no one in academia knows people in other careers, and that you have to bring them in for seminars with outside groups like postdoc support groups and PhD groups, etc, is that…these people are not successful. If they were, your advisors would know and respect them.But if they don’t, if they speak disparagingly about other trainees career choices, or just forget those trainees exist at all…it’s not encouraging to people trying to get out of academia. Not only do you not know who to turn to for advice, you begin to “drink the koolaid”, to see people outside of academia as not successful by your metric, and even if you KNOW, intellectually, that’s not true, it colors how you see them.
PIs need to explicitly make it ok to seek out other careers. There are groups and seminars at some schools to help with this, but I think it’s particularly important that PIs become involved. Otherwise, students and trainees often feel like they have to pursue career goals behind their PI’s back, furtively. I remember numerous times “sneaking” out of the lab at 5pm to get to a seminar, or saying I had a “lunch” so I could go to a seminar. Lab work is important, but somehow it’s always ok to go to the departmental seminars, and watch the same people present their work over and over again at the departmental group meetings. But going to an alternative careers seminar? Well, shouldn’t you be, you know, IN THE LAB?! That kind of selective pressure is the kind of pressure that keeps grad student’s lips sealed about their career ambitions. And it means that, in many cases, they remain in the dark, unaware of potential mentors or contacts that could help them get where they want to go.
This is not going to change overnight. But I wonder how much of it might change, if we just stopped calling it the “pipeline”. If we just acknowledge, everywhere that 5/6 of PhDs go somewhere other than the tenure track, and if we point out, and highlight, where it is that they go. It’s a small step, but small words can mean big things sometimes, in the long run.